How much to you know about economic changes in America’s labor force over the last 30 years? Apart from the occasional new article on Labor Day, few of us give much thought to the extraordinary sacrifices that were required of prior generations in order to bring us the level of comfort and dignity so many of us enjoy today. But the blessing our grand parents and great grand parents fought so hard to bring us are beginning to disappear. America, once the leader in raising up the middle class, has fallen behind many other advanced nations.
An article entitled “The Speedup” in the July-August, 2011 edition of Mother Jones, written by Monika Bauerlein and Clara Jeffery, takes a look at this issue. I created a pop quiz based on some of the facts in the article. Take the quiz to see how well you are doing as an American worker. There are only 7 questions, so it won’t take long. The answers are below. If you score very high you should take the afternoon off, maybe.
1. What does the USA have in common with Papua New Guinea, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Samoa and Swaziland?
a. We all celebrate the Fourth of July
b. Like us, baseball is their national pass-time.
c. We are the only six nations on earth that don’t have mandatory paid maternity leave.
2. In the last 30 years, American worker productivity (which can be measured as the amount of work we accomplish per hour) has:
a. Declined by 75%
b. Increased by 140%
c. Increased by over 240%
3. Increased productivity means more company profits since the labor costs per item is lower. So, given your answer to question number 2 above, in the past 30 years the average overall wages in the US has:
a. Decreased by 20%
b. Increased by over 50%
c. Increased by only 16%
4. Over this same 30 year period, the average income of the top 1% of Americans:
a. Increased by 20%
b. Increased by 40%
c. Increased by over 80%
5. The number of hours everyone works in a given week is something that impacts our family life, and the nations GDP. Germany has the highest GDP in Europe. So how many more hours per year (actual time on the job) do American’s work compared to German workers?
a. We work 80 hours, or almost two weeks more per year.
b. We work 198 hours, or almost five weeks more per year.
c. We work 378 hours, or almost 10 weeks more per year.
6. In this current recession the GDP of every nation initially plunged, but no nation was hit harder than Japan. Japan’s GDP dropped twice as much as did ours. So when it comes to jobs lost, which nation has the worst unemployment rate?
7. One last question. In 1950 nearly 35% of all wage or salary earners in America were in a union. What percentage of this group were union members as of last year?:
a. About 25%
b. Almost 20%
c. Less than 15%
If you answered each of the above question with option C you are well informed. Congratulations!
If you didn’t answer C to any of the questions, you really should read the article in Mother Jones.
In fact, we all need to be better informed so we can come together to restore a measure of economic justice in America. Here are a few additional details regarding each of the quiz questions:
1. Not only is the US only one of 6 countries that don’t have paid maternity leave, we are one of 16 nations that don’t require our workers to have time off each week. We are one of only 9 nations that don’t require businesses to offer a paid annual leave. Every one of our competitor nations provide this for their citizens.
2. While productivity has soared in the last 30 years by over 240%, the real value increase in the minimum wage since 1990 went up by just 21%. The increase in the cost of living rose 67% since 1990. Our output of goods and services in most sectors of the economy far outstrips the employment that most of these sectors create.
3. While income for the wealthiest 1% of American’s rapidly rises every year, the wealth owned by the rest of us actually declined slightly during the Regan years until about 1997. The increase since then is anemic compared to the enormous amount of wealth created by our great American labor force.
4. The rise in income among the wealthy, as large as it is, pales in compared to their rise in wealth. The top 20% of the wealthiest Americans today own almost 85% of everything leaving just 15% of the remaining wealth for the rest of us to share.
5. Not only do American’s rack up more time on the clock than our competitor nations (almost 10 weeks per year more than Germany) this doesn’t include the time we work off the clock. For example, half of us check emails on weekends and 46% of us even check work emails on days we are home sick.
6. Japan was hit twice as hard by the recession in terms of their drop in gross domestic product (GDP), yet our employment rate dropped more than twice their rate. Canada’s decline in GDP and employment initially mirrored our own (not quite as bad) but today their employment rate is higher than it was before the recession while we are worse off than all our competitor nations. Mean while, many American corporations are reporting record high profits.
7. The declining trend in union membership in America is in lock step with the decline of the middle class. The poor have faired even worse. Union workers today make about $10,000 more per year than non-union workers, yet the working public would rather trash unions than join one. The tensions between private sector employees and public sector workers is largely the result of envy by private sector workers who lost higher wages and many of their benefits when they lost their union.
How do you think we are doing as Americans? Most Labor Day articles remind us of the social battles and sacrifices prior generations have faced to bring a little dignity into our lives. We are doomed to repeat the mistakes of history if we don’t learn from them. I hope this quiz highlights where America may be headed and prompts you to consider what it will take to save the middle class. This is the real purpose for celebrating Labor, especially on Labor Day.
Note: First published in 2011, little has changed for the better since.